Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Pyramids, Part II

Chances are, if you were ever interested in ancient Egyptian culture in your history studies, the title of the next section of Pyramids will be all too familiar. Let’s get into The Book of the Dead.

Summary

Teppic has been home for two weeks and Dios is outfitting him with all his ceremonial implements. They go to see his father’s mummified body, and Teppic speaks to him. Teppicymon XXVII tries to speak back, to tell him that he’s not sure about pyramids, but his son cannot hear him—Dios speaks on his behalf instead. They go to review the pyramid with the royal architect, and Teppic tries to suggest burying his father at sea, but Dios will have none of it. They end up going for a pyramid, twice the size of any in the kingdom, with every bell and whistle possible. Teppic tells the architect it must be done in three months by Inundation. Dios appears to be in pain and thinks of how he needs to go across the river at night to heal. Teppic asks if he maybe needs to slow down, which Dios won’t entertain. He crosses the river.

The architect, Ptaclusp, is talking about the pyramid with his two sons, one of whom is very into the cosmic side of pyramid-building, the other of whom is an accountant. The brothers argue over the relative soundness of this exercise, but their father has decided they’re building the thing no matter what. Teppic is thinking about all the things he’d like to change as pharaoh, all the things he’s grown accustomed to that he’d like to bring to the kingdom, like mattresses and indoor plumbing. He has a dream where a pyramid grows until it swallows the world. He insists on talking more to the craftsmen by day, and asks them not to refer to him formally. He shakes the hand of a stonemason, not realizing that tradition dictates that hand must now be cut off because the man can’t use it without defiling it. Teppic tries to forbid it, but the man will cut the hand off himself if it’s not done. As the pyramid is getting built, its structure causes all sorts of temporal anomalies, even though it’s not finished. Ptaclusp intends to use those anomalies to his advantage in getting the pyramid complete on time.

Teppic has to play host to their bracketing kingdoms, Tsort and Ephebe, but it turns out that he’s meant to sit there and nod, as Dios already handled the political matters ahead of time. Then he holds Supreme Court and has to deal with Dios “translating” his pronouncements. The final case is for one of his father’s handmaidens, Ptraci—she’s refusing to take her poison and die, so she follows him into the afterlife. She insists he didn’t want to be buried in a pyramid. Dios sentences her to death the following day, so Teppic dons a disguise and breaks her out of her cell, then hides her in the embalming workshop. The next morning, Dios is beside himself to find that she has fled. The pyramid capping ceremony is supposed to happen the next day, but the pyramid itself is causing a lot of turbulence in space and time and matter.

Teppic puts on his assassin’s garb and goes back to Ptraci. He is helping her to escape by camel when the guards find them, and Dios is summoned. He insists that Teppic is not the king, that he is in fact an assassin who has killed the king. Tepic realizes that the high priest genuinely believes this. Just then the pyramid goes off, causing reality to shift oddly. Ptraci tells Teppic to close his eyes because it makes the world easier to navigate. They get onto the camel (named You Bastard, the world’s greatest mathematician) and ride until everything seems to settle. Back in Djelibeybi, Dil and Gern notice that the fabric of reality seems somewhat altered.

Commentary

We’ve got a joke here about Teppic’s great-great-grandmother being a man because she declared herself so, and that’s most likely a reference to Hatshepsut, who is the second female pharaoh that historians and archaeologists are aware of. The thing that’s bugging me here is that it’s brought up after the mention of familial marriages, and the joke is layered in such a way that it makes the subjects sound related? And while I can see how one might find the idea of mixing up various aspects of royal power humorous, it’s weird to have those ideas brought up in the same place.

It’s also a bit more complicated now, because while many people insist that Hatshepsut declared herself pharaoh as a matter of political expediency, it’s also possible that she was a gender non-conforming individual, and perhaps declared herself male because she—or rather he—was. (Yes, I am aware that our current definition of transness is new and that it would be thought of differently in an ancient civilization, but that doesn’t mean transness didn’t exist at all back then. Maybe Hatshepsut was a man and simply had the power to declare himself as such.) My point is, maybe combining jokes about gendered politics with jokes about incest isn’t a great idea all the way around?

There are a number of jokes like this that aren’t really working for me. At one point there’s an aside about how the handmaidens are dressed so skimpily that their sex appeal has practically been nullified, and Teppic remembers that there were women in Ankh-Morpork that could be covered ankle to neck, and attract all the men about them. It ends up reading as “the Western version of this is more appealing and attractive” even if the joke’s original intention was to point out that an overabundance of nudity can negate sexuality. There’s also the constant referral to the written language by describing the images in the hieroglyphs, which is a joke you make when you’re a kid the first time you ever encounter them. (Sure, it’s also a joke about an ad for Slumberdown beds apparently, but… who cares?) To use an anthropological term, it’s all very ethnocentric. The jokes are coming from a specific viewpoint, centered entirely on the cultural biases of the writer, and in this case, they’re just not playing out as fun as the rest of his material. Some of the jokes still work out, but some of them emphatically do not.

Part of the trouble is that it seems as though Pratchett is working from the assumption that most people aren’t going to know enough about Egypt and its culture for the jokes to land, and I suppose that’s fair to a point. (There’s a footnote where he explains how an outfit doesn’t work by suggesting what a foreign ambassador to the Court of St. James might wear that would be similarly out of step, and it’s admittedly hilarious.) But it doesn’t work as an excuse across the board, particularly not when you take into account how obsessive Britain has been about ancient Egypt through its history.

One of the things that bothers me here is actually quite specific; the primary thematic arc of this story has a prominent parallel within Egyptian history. You’ve got a pharaoh who wants to change tradition, and a high priest who is pushing back against those changes, a narrative preoccupied with the idea of how important it is to carve your own path and not adhere overmuch to everything that comes before you. Nothing suits that fight so well as the reign of Akhenaten Amenhotep IV. Egyptologists and archaeologist have been mesmerized by Akhenaten’s reign for ages because he changed everything while he was in charge, from art to religion. He’s a perfect figure to cite and crib from on a story like this, is my point, and I’m not an Egyptologist, so it’s not like I’m citing deep cut knowledge here.

There’s also the other kingdoms, which Ephebe is pretty darn Greek, and Tsort is… mostly Persian, I guess? Because they built their own pyramids too, but there’s probably an amalgam going on here, and I just want it a little more precise.

Aside from all this, we’ve got the introduction of Ptraci (who Teppic doesn’t know is his half-sister), and a camel doing math (cute), and the fabric of space-time getting all wonky. So I suppose things are about to get interesting? And then there’s Dios, who is clearly doing some sort of ritual to stay alive indefinitely, but I’ll be interested to know just how relevant that is to the plot.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • Okay, all winking references aside, may I please have an obsidian Reaping Hook of Justice.
  • Ptaclusp’s irritation over his sons, namely the fact that “You scrimped and saved to send them to the best schools, and then they went and paid you back by getting educated” is a very real problem in plenty of families the world over—parents sending their kids to college assuming they’ll do better in life, and then being annoyed when their kids come back with ideas that they didn’t consent to having put there.
  • The concept of reja vu (the feeling of “I’m going to be here again”) is very excellent, and I’m sort of surprised that it didn’t enter into the common lexicon. It’s dead useful as a term.
  • Teppic has that dream with the seven fat and thin cows, just like Joseph in the Bible, and all I can think of is the pharaoh’s song in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat now. (I briefly took dance lessons as a child, and our soft-shoe jazz number was to that song, I kid you not.)

Pratchettisms:

The fact that people died was just an inconvenience, like them being out when you called.

Let things slip in a situation like this and a man could find himself with 1,500,000 tons of bespoke limestone on his hands.

As a result of this sort of thinking, the priests of the Djel could give mind room to a collection of ideas that would make even a quantum mechanic give in and hand back his toolbox.

Of course, when you’re a pharaoh, you get a very high class of obscure dream.

It seemed that people only had respect for the dead when they thought the dead were listening.

Merely having existed for seven thousands years can be a formidable weapon, if you use it properly.

The servants cowered behind Teppic. This wasn’t mere anger. This was wrath. Real, old-time, vintage wrath. And waxing? It waxed like a hatful of moons.

The camel knew perfectly well what was happening. Three stomachs and a digestive system like an industrial distillation plant gave you a lot of time for sitting and thinking.

And behind them, tormented beyond measure by the inexorable tide of geometry, unable to discharge its burden of Time, the Great Pyramid screamed, lifted itself off its base and, its bulk swishing through the air as unstoppable as something completely unstoppable, ground around precisely ninety degrees and did something perverted to the fabric of time and space.

Next week we’re getting up through Part III!

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